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Two Tips for Incorporating Reportage and Cultural Criticism into the Personal Essay and Memoir

When writing real-life events, including interviews and first-hand accounts can enhance the writing. Here, author and essayist Hasanthika Sirisena shares two tups for adding reportage and cultural criticism into personal essays and memoirs.

I experience a tremor of nervousness any time someone asks me to talk about using reportage in an essay. For one thing, I’m not a journalist. I never trained in the basic processes of reportage—research, interviewing, and immersion—and I don’t want to sell myself to my readers or students as an expert. Also, I find it extraordinarily hard to ask people I don’t know well to give me their time and make themselves vulnerable. I wonder how to teach anyone else what I myself find hard to do.

(Hasanthika Sirisena: On the Importance of Literature)

But it’s undeniable that reportage and research enriches both the personal essay and the memoir. It can underscore the truth of a writer’s version of events or provide important alternate impressions. Reportage can also provide narrative tension to an essay as the writer goes out into the world seeking to discover—and uncover—the implications of personal experience.

Here are two tips, from an essayist who finds the experience occasionally discomfiting, for memoirists and essayists who want to incorporate reportage in their work.

Locate and understand the question you’re seeking to answer with your essay (or memoir)

When I first described my essay collection to my sister, she quipped, “Oh so it’s like Unsolved Mysteries in book form.” I laughed, but I was also impressed that my sister, not a writer, understood a basic principle of creative nonfiction so quickly: To find the burning and compelling question that drives your search.

Two Tips for Incorporating Reportage and Cultural Criticism into the Personal Essay and Memoir

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Once I have a question I want answered, I start researching and reading. I’ll try to find what’s written on a subject and use that research to help me hone my idea or augment my thinking. Research has helped me to understand why a question is important to me and to understand the deeper social and cultural implications of my search. I incorporate work by other writers and critics, either to buttress my ideas or to offer alternate visions. I also utilize the expertise of librarians asking them not only to help with research but also asking them to help put me in contact with experts.

Often, though not always, I tend to set up interviews only after I’ve at least started to research a project. Often, the research points me to people in the field who I should talk to, or at least points me to the type of expertise I should search for. One of the easiest ways to gain an interview is simply, “I read your piece on X subject, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk further.” You want to demonstrate a fundamental interest.

Understand that you have time and use that time to your advantage.

I have a deep love for movies, like Spotlight, about journalists racing against the clock to expose some terrible injustice. There’s usually a breakthrough moment when one interview, the interview, gives the journalist exactly the piece of information needed. In reality, interviewing is rarely that easy and very often a process that takes several months, or even years, and can be circuitous.

How long an interview takes depends on what I’m trying to write. When I am able to do so, I aim for multiple interviews. I’ll often invite an interviewee to coffee or to just chat, and I don’t record our talk or take notes. It’s simply to get to know each other and to build trust. After that, I try to build up a rapport with the person I’m interviewing, and we might talk multiple times over a few years.

Two Tips for Incorporating Reportage and Cultural Criticism into the Personal Essay and Memoir

If I am going to use the conversation in an essay, I do always ask if I can record the interview. I make my audio recordings either with a cassette player or my smart phone, and I make sure that the device is clearly visible to the person being recorded and that they are aware when it’s on and when I’ve turned it off. I also take detailed notes that record dialogue and also mannerisms and facial expressions so that I can build the interview into a scene.

This level of care might seem odd, and unnecessary. But often people don’t appreciate what it means to see their words or opinions expressed in a scene or contextualized in an essay. The process ensures that I have a record of what was said and also reminds us all that interviewing is a seemingly intimate process that will eventually become public.

Some useful examples

When working on Dark Tourist, I looked to a number of essay collections that combined personal experience with cultural criticism and reportage, including Wendy S. Walter’s Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal and Paisley Rekdal’s The Broken Country: On Trauma, A Crime, and the True Legacy of Vietnam.

One remarkable example is Maria Tumarkin’s essay collection Axiomatic. The collection’s driving question is how we survive loss and trauma. To provide parameters to her search, Tumarkin focuses on a maxim and explores the truth of the saying. In the first essay of the collection, “Time Heals All Wounds,” Tumarkin approaches Frances, the teenage sister of a young girl who committed suicide—one in a string of suicides at an Australian school. Over several years, Tumarkin establishes a relationship with Frances and eventually is given permission to read her school writing assignments and even her diaries building a portrait of both sisters and what it means to survive—or not.

Axiomatic took Tumarkin over a decade to complete, partly because she often talks to her subjects over many years. But the work isn’t a straightforward work of literary journalism. She combines deep research and her own observations to create a profoundly personal meditation on grief. Most importantly, Tumarkin doesn’t attempt to provide an answer to the questions. Instead she collects and contextualizes other people’s words and impressions, leaving us, her readers to decide for ourselves. 

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